Perspectives: Fauré & Hagen Program Notes

Concert info:

The word perspective has several meanings. In one sense, it can refer to the art of drawing an object on a two-dimensional surface so as to give the right impression of height, weight, width, depth, and relation to other objects. Perspective can also mean a particular way of regarding something; a point of view. Today’s concert provides us with several perspectives, from the writings of one of the great thinkers of Western civilization, to a living composer’s perspective on the relationship between technology and music, and to new ways of understanding religious devotion and expressions of spirituality. We also have the collaborative work of our two conductors, Julia Tai and Glenn R. Gregg, who bring their perspectives to the music, enhancing ours along the way.

Jocelyn Hagen: The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci

The relationship between music and technology is complex and goes well beyond synthesizers, Garageband, and Spotify playlists. The modern piano, as one example, is a stunning piece of technology that brought multiple mechanical inventions together in support of an understanding of acoustics that modernized music and inspired composers in countless ways.

A major inspiration for Jocelyn Hagen’s multimedia symphony The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci was technology itself, specifically her exposure to the video syncing software Muséik, which allows for seamless interaction between live music and film. In this work, a video projectionist works alongside the ensemble members, following the conductor, adjusting settings so that the music and video “are on equal ground and coalesce into one, blended, immersive performance,” suggests Hagen in her excellent TED Talk describing this work. As you experience the piece, note the ways in which you hear the music going beyond merely accompanying the film, but rather illuminating the text and images in ways that would not be possible without the interaction of both mediums.

The other source of inspiration for Hagen’s work are the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, which date between 1478 and 1518. These now famous collections include musings on almost every subject imaginable: anatomy, medicine, engineering, optics, architecture, hydraulics, botany, and natural history. Da Vinci’s personal annotations, often surprising in their vulnerability, offer insights into his passions, preoccupations, and eccentricities, with sketches showing his initial plans for seminal works such as The Last Supper and designs for a flying machine, created hundreds of years before others dared dream of flying. The integration of the notebooks into Hagen’s work shows up in traditional and innovative ways. In the former category, texts from the notebooks are sung by the choir, translated into English from the original Italian, and voiced in a fairly traditional oratorio style (Not unlike Fauré’s Requiem, to be heard later on today’s program). The instrumental writing provides some of the most innovative and interactive moments of the work, where we encounter the development of da Vinci’s ideas, even mistakes and crossouts, illuminated by sustained strings, buoyant woodwinds, and massive percussion outbursts. All of this connects perspectives across time, from the ancient to the modern, and Hagen’s work helps us understand that technology is a fluid and ever-changing part of our lives.

Gabriel Fauré: Requiem

“Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which
moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.”
– Gabriel Fauré

Several of the melodies of Fauré’s Requiem may be among the most beloved in Western classical music. Excerpts of the work show up in films and television (Batman, The Thin Red Line, Endeavor, to name only a few), state funerals (Princess Margaret’s was modeled after it in 2002) and other cultural moments that require a spiritual, but not dour, soundscape. Yet Fauré’s perspective on the Requiem Mass, a set liturgy within Roman Catholicism, excises most of the anxiety we tend to associate with human thinking about death. Nearly all references to the last judgment from the Catholic liturgy (and trust me, there are many) have been taken out by Fauré and replaced by ones more hopeful. From his own description about the work: “It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.”

The inspiration for Fauré’s perspective on the Requiem may be hard to decipher as it does not seem to be directly connected to his own grief or a family member’s death. As a liturgical musician himself, he may have been most interested in breathing life into a traditional and established form. States Fauré: “Perhaps I have instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper, after all the years of accompanying burial services on the organ! I know it all by heart. I wanted to write something different.” Even his choice of a central key of D minor thwarts tradition as typical key centers for a Requiem Mass would be much lower, and subsequently more somber.

Scored for 2 vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, Fauré often divides the choir into many subparts throughout the work, heightening the emotional reach. He continues this immediacy by careful use of soloists who come out of the larger textures to bring us a more direct, solitary contemplation of death. This may be most felt and heard in the melody of Pie Jesu movement, often sung by a boy soprano though offered in today’s performance by a female soprano. The main theme, much beloved, repeats 3 times with subtle variations, traversing small intervallic space with the occasional aching lift. A subtle move from Fauré changes the traditional text of requiem (rest) to sempiternam requiem (everlasting rest), yet another way in which the composer is searching for hope in the context of death.

A Last Perspective

When I was in high school and playing clarinet in an orchestra, my 80-year old grandfather asked me an honest question after attending one of my concerts: “Is that person up there waving their arms really that important?” I know now that Grandpa was speaking for many who do not fully understand the role of the conductor. We see them up there, indeed “waving their arms,” but we don’t often know the many roles they play in bringing great orchestral music to the stage, which can range from curator to fund raiser to concert producer. Today marks the final concert of Julia Tai’s 12-year position as Music Director of Philharmonia Northwest, and it is worth stopping to recognize the remarkable perspective she has brought to this orchestra and, subsequently, the region. The 22/23 season alone exemplifies her commitment to programming music of living and diverse composers (Caroline Shaw, Florence Price, Vivian Fung, Jocelyn Hagen), exciting soloists (Mary Elizabeth Bowden, Demarre McGill), as well as presenting engaging concerts for children and mainstays in the symphonic repertoire. In wishing her well in her many new endeavors, the words of Leonardo da Vinci from his notebooks say it well: “In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes: so with time present.”

James Falzone
Dean and Professor of Music
Cornish College of the Arts